The sculpture of the mythical phoenix bird that rises from the ashes stands at the gate of Punarjani. It is clearly visible though the fog is thick.
Punarjani is a de-addiction and rehabilitation centre, probably one of its kind in Kerala, and is situated in the hilly village of Poomala in Thrissur district.
If the walls could speak, they would narrate stories of pain, sorrow, depression, sacrifice, guilt, love, grief and many more emotions. Some newcomers stand at the gate, shouting that they want to go back, some others laugh at them and say, âWe came here when we were in a worse state than you are. So please come back to life like this phoenix bird.â
Punarjani is home to a group of people who once faced the scorn of society for being drunkards. People who have gifted only tears to their loved ones.
But among all the stories of its inmates, the one tale that stands out would be of its founder Johnson K Mangalam's. Johnson is a professor of Philosophy and Head of the Department at Thrissur Kerala Varma College. He has narrated his complex life in his autobiography "Kudiyante Kumbasaram" ("Drunkardâs Confessions").
A turbulent past
Johnson tasted liquor at the age of 14 and later turned into a regular drinker, following the path of his father who was an alcoholic.
Despite his addiction, he secured the first rank in his undergraduate as well as postgraduate courses. He went on to complete his PhD, and add an LLB degree to his cap of feathers.
âI hated my father as he was a drunkard, but when I became one I understood him,â Johnson says.
Though he got a job as a college professor, he ended up losing it and becoming completely dependent on his wife Raji's salary to sustain his addiction. A huge financial crisis and insults from society and family were his only "savings". Once, he even worked as a coolie in Thrissur to get the money for alcohol.
âAt one point of time, I thought what is the point in living without taking care of my wife, without expressing love to my son. It was then that I decided to die, but wished that at least in my death, my family should benefit. I took an LIC policy so that my family would get some amount. But a fitness certificate was necessary for the LIC policy. To secure that, I decided to quit drinking for a while and went to a doctor,â says Prof. Johnson, describing the beginning of his transformation.
Johnson and family
Dr VJ Paul, whom he approached to get a fitness certificate, told him that Johnson was a fool.
âMy ego was hurt that the doctor had called me, a doctorate degree holder as well as an advocate, a fool. But he reminded me that I canât look after my family...that I have gone there to kill myself in order to gain an LIC policy. Then I thought I was really a fool," admits Johnson.
From that moment of epiphany, Johnson decided that he wished to live without the help of alcohol for at least a few days. The doctor and his wife Raji stood behind him with full support and love.
Though Raji had suffered more than what she could bear, she wanted her husband back as a normal man.
âThe doctor convinced me that alcoholism is a disease, I was ignorant about it,â Johnson says.
It was not easy. His was a struggle to stop a habit that had spanned close to 20 years. Withdrawal symptoms were severe and Raji recalls how difficult it was: âHe used to get hallucinations. At that time, he was not aware that these were hallucinations. A couple of times, the situation was so serious that we had to go to hospital. Though we lied to people, they came to know that he was suffering from withdrawal symptoms."
Raji stood by him like a pillar, not ever tiring of his sufferings. Johnson was finally rescued from alcoholism when he was 36 years old. It has been 17 years since he has touched liquor. Punarjani was his expiation.
Rebirth at Punarjani
âWhen I first went to the doctor, a nurse came to me and applied some oil on my hair and asked me to sleep lovingly. I cried a lot then, because for a drunkard, love from others is an unreachable asset," he says.
After getting cured, Johnson understood a drunkardâs situation, mind and psychology. He realised that an ex alcoholic could easily cure another one.
âFirst we should differentiate between an alcoholic and an occasional drinker. An alcoholic would be very egoistic. He would never surrender or agree that he is an alcoholic,â he observes.
Punarjani adopts an unique way of dealing with the sickness. Unlike other rehabilitation centres, Punarjani neither locks up the alcoholics nor compels them into prayers. The centre doesnât use any medicines either.
âFreedom is very important for drunkards, because they are the ones who'd have enjoyed freedom at its height. So we cannot keep them locked,â Johnson says.
âHere, we are bringing back a person's life through his family, like how I got mine back. If itâs a married person, his wife will have to stay with him here compulsorily, otherwise the mother. It is through them that I work out the whole procedure of curing the patients. I analyse their root cause of drinking, correct their family issues by incorporating the bystander, analyse their family, professional, societal and sexual life,â he says.
Punarjani doesnât just rescue an addict from his habit, it also gives him back his family.
Night class at Punarajani
Johnson says alcoholism is a family disease - not only the alcoholic, his family should also be cured. The familyâs attitude towards him should change and they should be compassionate.
âI meet the patient only on the final day, till then I counsel and communicate only with the bystander (mother or wife). It is their duty to bring him back,â Johnson avers.
Pointing to Noby, who has come to Punarjani on the compulsion of his wife Swapna, Johnson says that the man is not prepared to be here as he is at the "height of ego" and unable to accept himself as an alcoholic.
âI am not an alcoholic, I just drink one or two pegs once in a while. It is she who is lying. I just want to go back,â Noby shouts, pointing at his wife who stand there and weeps silently.
After her husband moves away, Swapna tells those who've gathered there that every day, Noby drinks, hits her and is now in a situation where he cannot live without alcohol.
Most of the patients who come to Punarjani are willing to change, but some are reluctant.
âThey would be unhappy for the first two days but will get adjusted to the environment after that. Here, they find people who share equal sorrow with them. Sharing their burden is solace for the bystanders as well as the patients. More than an alcoholic, their family suffers more,â Johnson notes.
A 14-year-old boy who gave in to peer pressure is the youngest in the community now.
The Punarjani campus is situated opposite the Poomala dam, which provides a beautiful and calm ambience. Around 25 to 30 inmates are likely to be in Punarjani at a time, shifting their focus from alcohol to community life, rearing animals and birds and also involving themselves in sports and arts.
The centre gives a 21 day course in achieving a new life without any medication.
âI have completed the course and will leave tomorrow. I was working in Sudan and had turned into a complete alcoholic. Now I have the confidence that I will not touch drinks again,â says Rahees, an inmate.
Most of the inmates have a similar story tell: how they betrayed people's trust, turned into drunkards and lost the love of their families in the process.
From a 14 year old to a 50 year old, poor and rich, professionals to daily wage workers, all come to Punarajani seeking a new life. Whether it is financial crisis, divorce, love failure, sexual distress, or whatever else, they are promised a happy ending.
For the first two or three days at the centre, the patients are given liquor in order to recover from the withdrawal problems, which is called as the âTapering Methodâ.On Day 1, the âperformanceâ of the patient after ingesting alcohol is recorded. The video is then shown to him at the end of the course, when it's time to leave, to discourage him from starting the habit again.
Reluctant patients are served alcohol in small quantities, with the amount being gradually reduced till the time they learn to cope without drinking. There are classes every day, in the morning as well as evening.
âI speak in their language. Not as a professor. I use abusive language too, because it is common among them and I know that very well. So I become one among them and they listen to me,â Johnson says. âThe treatment here is very simple, just psychological approaches."
Prof. Johnson is worried about the future of Punarjani. âThere will not be an institution of its kind in the country. I developed the methods here though my own experiences. I was proven right as we've been successfully functioning for the last 12 years. More than 10,000 people have been cured from here. But I have not yet got a perfect person to take up the responsibilities and take the institution forward,â Johnson says. He suffers from serious liver cirrhosis and other physical ailments.
This Center is under the banner of Punarjani Charitable Trust. "Till this day we have not received any sort of financial help either from the state or central government, because this is not a technical de- addiction centre," he said.
âMy son works abroad, I wish to stay alive till at least my son comes back and takes up this institution,â he ends on a bittersweet note.
Edited by Sowmya Rajendran